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Skoda reprises an understated everyday hero, but is TDI power still of any interest?

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Diesel power is not, and never has been, the first thing that comes to mind when hot hatchbacks are the subject of discussion.

Not that anyone has told Skoda when it comes to the Skoda Octavia vRS.

Gloss-black plastic for the grille surround differentiates the vRS from regular Octavia models, which use chrome instead. They’re not so noticeable on our black test car, but the lower air intakes are also considerably larger.

Skoda has long ploughed this particular furrow, and has to some extent made the niche its own with a line of fast, frugal and clandestine products that stretches all the way back to the boxy Fabia vRS supermini of 2003. Yes, the entire vRS sub-brand sprang into life via the black plump.

Which is perhaps why, when so many car makers are ditching diesel and heading for the hybrid hills in order to reduce their average fleet emissions, Skoda is reprising its quick TDI Skoda Octavia vRS for no less than the fourth time.

Admittedly, this latest mode also comes in Skoda Octavia vRS petrol and petrol-electric plug-in hybrid Skoda OCtavia vRS forms, both of which have powertrains considerably more powerful than the 2.0-litre TDI we’re testing here, and so bets are most definitely being hedged in Mladá Boleslav. But the decision to give the diesel derivative a stay of execution suggests Skoda recognises how much satisfaction this car’s forebears have given their often loyal owners, and that there is life in the concept yet.

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That concept takes the regular Skoda’s unusually spacious shell – which looks like it belongs in the C-segment on the outside, but feels undeniably D-segment once you’re ensconced within it – and in 2021 propels it with the second most powerful four-cylinder diesel the Volkswagen Group makes. Deploying the 237bhp 2.0-litre twin-turbo unit available in more senior VW models such as the Volkswagen Arteon would have made for a more exciting product, no doubt, and would have also brought the Octavia vRS TDI into line with its petrol-fuelled siblings in terms of outright shove, but for whatever reason, that hasn’t happened.

The chassis has undergone targeted modification to move the Octavia from ‘consummate family car’ to something altogether more toothy, and the cabin follows suit, with Alcantara and perforated leather underscoring the vRS badge.

This pleasing recipe is well known by now, but with the days of the diesel-powered hot Skoda numbered, the scene is now set for us to answer the big question: should you buy one of these all-rounders while you still can, in order to keep it for the long term?

The Octavia line-up at a glance

Skoda’s range of engines for the Octavia is as comprehensive and forward looking as you would expect from any major manufacturer in 2021.

The options can be roughly divided into three groups: straight internal-combustion engines, those assisted by 48V mild-hybrid systems (denoted ‘e-TEC’), and full plug-in hybrids.

 

DESIGN & STYLING

2 Skoda Octavia vRS TDI 2021 road test review hero side

The vRS badge means different things depending on which variant you’re talking about. However, the line-up helpfully mirrors that of VW’s hot Golfs.

The petrol Octavia vRS uses the same 242bhp 2.0-litre TSI as the Golf GTI; the plug-in hybrid Golf GTE donates its 1.4-litre TSI and electric motor to the Octavia vRS iV, to deliver the same 242bhp as the pure petrol, albeit achieved differently; and the 197bhp 2.0-litre TDI tested here is shared with the Golf GTD.

Polished stainless steel exhaust tips perhaps hint at more performance and firepower than the 197bhp 2.0-litre TDI under the bonnet can provide, but they give the car an appreciably serious, junior super-saloon persona.

As well as generating 16bhp more than the unit it replaces, this new Evo turbo diesel also benefits from VW’s latest selective catalytic reduction (SCR) technology, known as ‘twin dosing’. AdBlue is injected upstream of two SCR catalytic converters arranged in series, with the claimed result that NOx emissions are 80% lower.

What makes the Octavia vRS TDI unique from its VW GTD counterpart, and from the petrol-powered vRS models, is that it is available with a clutch-based four-wheel drive system, which gives the car an added element of usability and an undeniable USP. However, our test car goes without rear driveshafts – its powertrain is solely front drive – and is equipped with the seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox that is the only transmission option available. Anybody who specifically wants a manual gearbox will need to turn their attention to the petrol vRS, or to Ford’s 187bhp Focus ST diesel.

As for its chassis, the Octavia vRS once again pairs Golf GTI hardware with a longer wheelbase, which has in the past successfully injected control and agility into the car’s practicality-minded brief. The standard-fit vRS-specific passive suspension sets the body 15mm lower than the regular Skoda Octavia, though for only £945 it’s likely most owners will go for the optional Dynamic Chassis Control, which offers numerous damper settings selectable via the cabin’s central touchscreen. However, once again, our test car keeps things basic.

The steering rack has also been quickened, from 2.7 turns between locks in the regular car to 2.1 for all vRS models. What this front-driven TDI version does not get – but what the TSI model does get and what the four-wheel-drive TDI doesn’t need – is any form of limited-slip differential. The TDI also uses marginally smaller brakes than the TSI, though both cars are fitted with striking 19in alloys.

Stylistically speaking, the new Octavia builds on the Skoda’s increasingly menacing exterior design for vRS models. There are copious angles, elements of gloss-black trim, full LED headlights and, more fundamentally, the wider rear track width than standard, which adds attitude. You might even begin to question just how much Q-car appeal the Octavia vRS today holds.

INTERIOR

8 Skoda Octavia vRS TDI 2021 road test review cabin

Custodians of the previous Octavia vRS will feel familiar with the new car’s mechanical make-up, its various racy design cues and overall role in life, but they won’t so easily recognise the heavily revised interior.

Utilitarian dashboard plastic has given way to warm Alcantara with red stitching, and the multifunction steering wheel has been brought forward by what feels not one generation but two. Through it you can see the new digital instrument binnacle, while the car’s centre console is now dominated by a freestanding touchscreen, which isn’t so neatly integrated as the old system but is at least now at eye level.

Stubby gear selector reflects the fact the Octavia is now shift by wire. This design isn’t unlike that used by Porsche. It saves space but lacks elegance.

What hits you is the perception of space. In its dimensions, the Mk4 car is only fractionally larger than its forebear, but the move to shift by wire for the stubby new gear selector has uncluttered the transmission tunnel. The more organically shaped panels also make the cabin feel less austere and, to some extent, less poky. It’s soothing in here.

However, while the black headlining and aluminium pedals give the vRS an effective sporting lift, there remain some exposed poor plastics, and the plastic-chrome controls are simply not sturdy enough either in look or feel to convince you this Octavia is the truly premium product Skoda is clearly aiming for.

Equally, though thuggishly bolstered and decently comfortable, the modular seats, with their integrated headrests, feel set too high for a genuinely serious driver’s car, and no amount of the matt carbonfibre-effect trim can change that.

What the Octavia can fall back on is its class-leading boot, sprawling leg room for rear-seat passengers and generous equipment. And that’s part of the appeal: behind the vRS badges is still an exceptionally well conceived family car.

Skoda Octavia infotainment and sat-nav

The VW Group’s move to a more touch-sensitive, button-free infotainment universe has not gone as smoothly as it would have liked. The new system in the Octavia is not especially intuitive, and it can be difficult to make quick adjustments on the fly.

The 10.25in Virtual Cockpit looks slick, offers good clarity and raises the car’s premium appeal, but the central 10.0in Columbus sat-nav display is less impressive. The touch-sensitive volume slider is especially frustrating while, on the screen itself, the home icon is positioned at the top left-hand corner – ideal for the car’s home market, but very poor ergonomically in any right-hand-drive model. There is at least the option of mirroring one’s smartphone, with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto both catered for.

The cabin is also generously furnished with USB ports: there are five, including one built into the rear-view mirror to charge dashcams.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

You would have had more luck babying some big, front-engined V12 bruiser off the mark in the days before launch-control software than squeezing an optimal 0-60mph time out of the diesel Octavia vRS on the day we tested it at Millbrook. With ambient temperature at just 1deg C and damp patches on the track, the tyres struggled fruitlessly for traction through both first and second gears.

The problem was twofold. First, and as has already been pointed out, the diesel Octavia vRS lacks the LSD-mimicking VAQ system available in the petrol, and therefore once one of its front Goodyear Eagle F1 tyres has slipped, it remains so. Second, and as is common to almost all modern turbo diesels, the torque output hits its 295lb ft peak early and almost out of nowhere, with the turbocharger suddenly waking up at around 1700rpm. The combination means it’s very difficult to mete drive out with much precision during full-bore runs, at least in these conditions.

Diesel has never been the most charismatic engine type and, as far as many people are concerned, has written its own obituary in recent years. But cars like this show it will be missed: the vRS is decent to drive and with excellent fuel economy.

What is therefore quite odd is the fact that our test car recorded a 7.2sec 0-60mph time, which tallies with Skoda’s claim of 7.4sec to 62mph. Clearly Porsche has some competition when it comes to understating performance claims, because it’s reasonable to assume that in warmer, drier conditions the TDI Octavia vRS would easily have dipped below seven seconds. By comparison, the Golf GTD is rated at 7.1sec to 62mph, and the DSG-equipped petrol Octavia vRS – the one with the VAQ system – manages 6.6sec. The diesel Skoda clearly has some bite.

But standing starts are not what the car is about. Its 7.3sec time for the haul from 30mph to 70mph in fourth – our preferred measure of how deep an engine’s lungs are – is only three tenths slower than the time recently recorded by the new 306bhp Audi S3. Which, just to dispel any confusion, is mightily impressive.

Of course, in normal circumstances, the seven-speed gearbox would kick down if you fully depressed the throttle pedal in fourth, and it would do so quickly and intuitively. The gearbox shift calibration is good in this car, as demonstrated by the fact our testers rarely if ever found themselves grasping for one of the stubby, vaguely apologetic plastic gearshift paddles on the steering wheel.

However, on occasion, you may need to knock the ’box into Sport mode. What you don’t get with this powertrain is much shape in the delivery, which is unsurprising. The TDI unit’s exertions come with a good thwack of torque, but once the turbo has spooled up, that delivery is uniform until it starts to become strained at 4000rpm. The EA888 VW engine in the petrol vRS is no paragon of excitement in this respect, but there’s more to sink your teeth into.

RIDE & HANDLING

16 Skoda Octavia vRS TDI 2021 road test review cornering

Despite its implied status as the least athletic and exciting of the Octavia vRS brood, the TDI is not the one-dimensional clodhopper you might expect it to be.

The diesel engine is, of course, heavier than the petrol, but it doesn’t make the car feel noticeably nose-heavy by comparison, which has sometimes been the case in the past. Aided by the Skoda Octavia’s unusually long wheelbase for the class, the balance is also more neutral than you might expect, and direction changes are neat via the light but direct and pleasingly gritty steering.

The limits of this focused-looking car’s sportiness are laid bare when driven spiritedly on favourable B-roads. The addition of a limited-slip diff would help in this regard.

It therefore isn’t hard to establish an enjoyable flow in the vRS TDI, not least because the spring and damper set-up is taut but still permits a calculated degree of heave.

Which is perhaps why there’s little doubt this car is at its best when driven at no more than a ‘committed canter’. Were you to pitch it into battle with more driver-centric front-driven hatches – such as the new BMW 128ti or Renault Mégane RS – the Skoda would find itself exposed painfully early on.

The faint slack in the suspension that makes the car such easy-going company when driven at lukewarm pace undoes the handling somewhat if you really throw the thing down an interesting B-road. Of course, optioning the DCC dampers – relatively cheap at £945 – would help, but even this would not overcome the greatest barrier Skoda has itself erected for the car, which is (again) the lack of any LSD-type hardware.

This isn’t so much of a problem on the way into corners, but too much enthusiasm anywhere between apex and exit – easily achieved, because of the robust torque delivery – and the progress becomes scruffy.

Traction-limited and on the soft side, the Octavia vRS TDI is therefore unlikely to tempt too many committed hot hatch enthusiasts. However, for the driver who needs diesel and is looking to upgrade into something that feels reasonably serious and is, in most circumstances, very capable indeed, the Skoda offers broad appeal.

At less than 1450kg, this Octavia vRS is not a particularly heavy car, and the engine’s torque duly made short work of the severe gradients that often have similarly powerful cars labouring away on Millbrook’s Hill Route.

However, at maximum attack, the drone of the engine quickly becomes tiring and for this reason alone there’s little satisfaction to be had from wringing the car’s neck.

When given the opportunity to show what it can do, free from speed limits and other road users, the chassis is similarly unambitious. It does demonstrate hints of adjustability on turn-in, but thereafter remains fairly inert and, as on the road, scrappy and prone to understeer if you don’t get the application of power right on the way out of bends.

Again, warmer Tarmac and grippier tyres would help its cause, but fundamentally the car feels set up for security rather than dynamism.

Comfort and isolation

Without the optional DCC adaptive dampers, the car’s suspension tune exists as a compromise, albeit one Skoda will have attempted to optimise. As ever, the concern is that the suspension has been optimised for smoother European roads than our own, though happily this doesn’t seem to be the case.

In effect, what the Skoda gives away in ultimate handling precision and body control, it gains in usability and in its forgiving gait. There is an edge to the ride quality, and anyone expecting to find the cushioned waft achieved by the larger Skoda Superb will be disappointed, but overall it rides more serenely than its performance-infused superficial character would suggest.

Indeed, we’ve sampled the DCC dampers on the petrol vRS, and while they offer some improvement in outright comfort in their softest setting, the difference with the passive set-up isn’t night and day. Certainly, you are more likely to want the DCC dampers for the benefit they provide on B-roads, rather than motorways.

Of more concern are the Lamborghini-esque 19in wheels. Despite the soft, generous bucket seats, they still impart a slight prickliness to the ride quality, whichever suspension you have, with the effect particularly marked at lower speeds. They also generate plenty of road roar, as picked up by our testing microphones.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

1 Skoda Octavia vRS TDI 2021 road test review hero front

Skoda has increased the price of the TDI Octavia vRS by roughly £4000 during the handover from third to fourth generation, reflecting the engine’s new emissions-mitigating systems and the interior makeover.

It means the new car is priced to match the more powerful petrol variant and also the Golf GTD, and there are good reasons why you might choose either of those alternatives.

Skoda closely matches the Ford Focus ST diesel for residual value, but neither can keep pace with the expensive VW Golf GTD

Company car buyers might also be tempted by the plug-in hybrid Octavia vRS iV on account of its 30g/km, compared with 130g/km for the TDI. However, we would advise caution with this approach. If you want something fast and practical, the PHEV will deliver it, but in our experience the most economical Octavia vRS on paper is the most compromised model in the range in terms of ride and handling.

Finally, drivers who accumulate big annual mileages are still best served by the TDI, on the basis of its truly impressive economy figures during testing. Touring economy well beyond 60mpg is possible with this car, and even with mixed use 40mpg-plus should be achievable.

 

VERDICT

17 Skoda Octavia vRS TDI 2021 road test review static

The purchase of any diesel performance car comes with an admission that practical matters matter. Owners of such cars tend to be relatively circumspect.

For this reason, it would be unfair to criticise the latest Octavia vRS TDI for having an engine more effective than engaging, when that engine will happily deliver fuel economy no petrol-powered hot hatch could ever dream of matching. And it would be remiss to dismiss it on the basis that it doesn’t deliver the level of dynamic reward some of us might want when our favourite B-roads unfurl ahead of us.

Enduring fast diesel is better at a simmer than a rolling boil

The car is clearly intended to work best when driven at seven tenths, rather than nine, and that is exactly what it does. A more sophisticated driveline would improve the recipe, but the car’s fundamental balance of ride and handling is good enough to give the driver quiet satisfaction.

The hot-ish diesel Octavia feels very much like the kind of car one would miss once it was gone, which is precisely what’s likely to happen in the coming years as diesel is phased out. And that’s a shame, because evidently Skoda’s popular niche offering would still slip into most people’s lives very nicely indeed.

 

Richard Lane

Richard Lane
Title: Deputy road test editor

Richard joined Autocar in 2017, arriving from Evo magazine, and is typically found either behind a keyboard or steering wheel.

As deputy road test editor he delivers in-depth road tests, performance benchmarking and supercar lap-times, plus feature-length comparison stories between rival cars. He can also be found on Autocar's YouTube channel

Mostly interested in how cars feel on the road – the sensations and emotions they can evoke – Richard drives around 150 newly launched makes and models every year, and focuses mainly on the more driver-orientated products, as is tradition at Autocar. His job is then to put the reader firmly in the driver's seat. 

Away from work, but remaining on the subject of cars, Richard owns an eight-valve Integrale, loves watching sportscar racing, and holds a post-grad in transport engineering. 

Skoda Octavia vRS First drives